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02/01/2012

Gingrich on IVF: Bad for Families, Bad for Bioethics

Scientists, reproductive specialists and andrologists had better prepare. If Newt Gingrich has his way (and wins the Presidency), he will have a whole new world in store for science and medicine.

Newt has revived the embryo debate in Republican politics, giving bioethicists a “walk-on role” as Michael Cook explains it. How successful he will be on keeping it on the radar is another issue altogether. It is just as likely that Newt may have just been pandering to the audience at the Exciting Idlewild Baptist Church in Florida, trying to secure votes that clearly were not enough to win the Florida Primary. Perhaps his views on IVF have been informed by his Catholic conversion.

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Yet, Gingrich doesn’t seem to have a well thought out plan for how to tackle the wild west of IVF research. His bold move? Appoint a commission about the ethics of assisted reproductive technology. My prediction: like other Republican appointed bioethics commissions before it, their recommendations will result in little change to actual practice or policy. This does not bode well for bioethics in the Gingrich administration.

His goal: to have more federal control over IVF clinics. Well that shouldn’t be hard since there is virtually none now. Most people agree that IVF clinics should be more closely regulated. That is not what is concerning about his proposal.

His primary goal seems to be reducing the number of excess embryos created in the lab and prevent their disposal after the couple has conceived because, as Gingrich puts it, it amounts to “the use of science to desensitize society over the killing of babies.”Never mind that the embryos sitting in excess storage for years eventually cannot be used by anyone. But Gingrich doesn’t see it that way: “If you have in vitro fertilization you are creating life. And therefore we should look seriously at what should the rules be for clinics that do that because they’re creating life,” he says.

Get ready for Snowflake babies and increased demand on freezer space, if Gingrich wins the nomination and the general election. At last count nearly 400,000 excess embryos were sitting in freezer storage around the US. And that was in 2003. IVF procedures have only increased in frequency since then. Gingrich’s position would only exacerbate that problem.

Another problem that Gingrich hasn’t considered is the fact that if procedures involving the creation of embryos are changed with the goal of reducing the number of excess embryos IVF is likely to become even more costly for couples trying to conceive, pricing many couples out of the market. With IVF success rates being in the range of 20-30 percent (approximately one in four fertilized eggs results in a pregnancy), this may mean that the average cost of one IVF cycle ($12,000) should have be paid for 2, 3 or 4 times before a woman can conceive. The only sensible way to reduce the number of embryos left over is to create less of them in the first place. Making embryos one at a time would be even more costly for the to-be parents and prolong the agony of waiting to learn if one can have a child.

Gingrich’s stance on IVF clinics would make it harder for couples to conceive through IVF generally. It would become more agonizing, more expensive, and likely more rare that women could conceive using ART. Some regulation and oversight (more than we have now in the US) would be ideal. But making the process of creating a family in the lab shouldn’t be any harder and emotionally draining than it already is. For a candidate who espouses family values, it is more than ironic that Gingrich would try to stand in the way of those who would do anything to have a child. It’s just wrong.

Summer Johnson McGee, PhD

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